Into Siem Reap and The Bugs Cafe

None of us are feeling so well when we wake up on our last day in Bangkok. Suspect buckets full of cheap liquor and 5 am shutdown times may be at least partially culpable. No time to waste though, we’ve got to get to the airport to fly into Siem Reap and there’s unfinished business before we get to Cambodian immigration. While we load up on coffee Murphy, Drisdelle and Queenie run across the street from our hotel to make copies of their e-visas. I’m getting a visa-on-arrival, see how that goes… They also need proof of onward passage – our plan is to take a speedboat across the Vietnamese border. Sounds pretty badass, maybe in our new jackets, Miami Vice style. We jump online and email one of the boat companies our deets and hope that they get back to us before we reach immigration in Siem Reap.

We hit Khaosan for a quick breakfast at a place called Golf Bar. Nothing to write home about really. Not like their cocktails apparently

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We start haggling with cabbies to get to the airport – “700 baht” “No, 500” “600 baht” “No, 500” “550” “No, 500” “Okay 500”. Queenie goes to Thai immigration to try to get a re-entry visa sorted for when she transits through on her way to Taiwan in a few days while the rest of us go get drinks. Me and Murphy grab a couple of brewskies and Drisdelle goes for a refreshing Pink Grapefruit Breezer. We take our drinks to a coffee shop and spread out our junk to kill a few hours, I buy a tiramisu to qualify us as “paying customers” and we wait and see what happens with Queenie.

In the meantime two girls working at the shop approach our table and loom over us. One girl says “I am sorry sir, you cannot drink alcohol here.” Her backup just gives us a hard look. Okay then, we walk out into the hallway, chug our booze and sit back down.

Queenie comes to meet us at the coffee shop and is a little worried. They won’t give her a re-entry visa and she’s having a hard time getting solid reasons from anyone. She really doesn’t want to be in the same position she was last time coming back into the country and not being allowed passed immigration. She’s fretting about it, having had such a terrible experience the last time. She hits a few information booths and gets different information from each one. Murphy tries to reassure her that there’s no way they won’t let her back through immigration if it’s only to catch a flight back out of Bangkok a few hours later. She remains worried, poor thing.

Sitting at the gate there are suspiciously few people here. We get on and the flight is only 25% full, weird but good cause we all get to spread out. The flight is short but the Thai Smile crew bring us an in-flight meal anyways, which of course contains fish. Murphy and I eat the dessert pastries and throw the fish back in the faces of the distraught flight attendants.

A bus takes us from the tarmac to the immigration compound and I jump off, elbows up and taking no prisoners to break to the front. I’m the only one of our crew without a visa and I’m the only one with checked luggage so I’m worried I’ll be fucking up the game. I’m second in line at the visa-on-arrival line and I slide the guy my application and passport. He says something very softly, “What?” “Thirty dollars” … You’d think he was asking for a bribe the way he said it but it was part of the deal, totally on the up-and-up. Another officer walks up and chucks my passport several feet away onto a cluttered desk. Ugh. No matter how many times I see that it still makes me uncomfortable, convinced I’ll lose my passport into the clutter of a bureaucrat’s desk some day.

I mosey into another line while tracking the others’ progress by keeping an eye on Murphy’s LMFAO-fro jutting out from among the masses in the immigration queues. Another two minutes and I’ve got my visa, sweet, I scan the lines to find the shortest and jump into the back. It’s moving slow but I’m probably neck-to-neck with the rest of the gang at this point. Then I see an officer emerge from a back room to open up a new gate, I run for it and now I’ve only got three or four people ahead of me. Get to the front and they fingerprint me, stamp me and I’m through. Find my baggage and I’m good to go, the other three still waiting in line.

Strangely I’m the only one of us to get fingerprinted. Not sure what that’s about.

Exit the airport expecting to get swarmed by calls of “TAXI” “TAXI” “TAXI” “TAXI” but it’s pretty chill, only one guy asks us if we’d like one. There’s a desk where we have a choice between a few types of transport, we can ride into town on the back of a scooter, go in a mini-van, a regular taxi or a “remork”. It’s kind of like a tuk-tuk but with two bench seats facing each other and rather than replacing the back end of the bike it’s more like a fifth-wheel trailer that hooks up to a motorcycle. One could say they’re remorkable. Too small for us with all our gear though, so car it was.

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Riding into town what we see is not really what we expected. At the risk of sounding like a dick it doesn’t look like Asia at all – very clean and orderly, no trash anywhere, the traffic is even fairly reasonable and people seem to be staying on their own sides of the road. We all comment on how different it is from so many parts of Asia we’ve visited.

“When I get out of this car I want to smell shit.” – Jamie Drisdelle

We pull into the street where our hostel is located, the driver doesn’t want to head down it (“Too busy”) but says it’s only a five minute walk, no problem.

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Everything looked very chill and small-scale, like a quaint little village (we later discovered this to be very deceptive, it just so happens the way we took in was unusual in this regard). Really nice looking restaurants, especially one called “The Bug Cafe” that appeared to be serving insect-based cuisine. We’re definitely coming back to that.

Our hostel is great, it’s called Onederz, really clean with a lively common room in the front, a crew of youngish backpackers sitting around watching Finding Dory on a big screen. The girls at the desk are a bit bashful, really adorable. They tell us they filled the four-bed room we’d booked so instead they put us into a six-bed room for no extra charge, they won’t fill the other two beds, pretty decent. Payment is up front but they don’t take card… We all kind of look at each other while they give us directions to the ATM until Murphy reaches into his pocket and windmill slams a fistful of dollars onto the desk, making the girls jump in surprise and making the rest of us burst out laughing.

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The room is great as well, we throw down our shit and head out to eat some bugs. A French guy sitting near the door turns out to be the owner and he gives us the rundown on what the place is about – he’s teamed up with a Cambodian chef to make French-influenced gourmet cuisine using bugs rather than more traditional sources of protein. He emphasizes that this is real food, it isn’t a reality show challenge, cracks a few jokes, gives us some info on why eating insects is better for the environment, makes a couple of suggestions and calls over one of the servers to take our cocktail orders.

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Drisdelle goes for a Whiskey Sour, Murphy and I go for a couple of Spicy Cucumber drinks – super refreshing but with a bit of spicy kick when it hits the tongue – and Queenie goes for the Cambodian Fever. Wowza, it packs a punch – you can see the hot peppers suspended throughout it.

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We go with the boss’ recommendation and order a Large Sampler Platter along with two crocodile meat dishes, one a la Francaise and one in traditional Khmer style. While we wait we notice the music is lounge covers of familiar songs like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, we don’t pay too much attention until we hear a crooner say “More than meets the eyyeeeee…” Is that we think it is? Yes it is – a lounge version of the Transformers theme song.

There are bugs flying everywhere around us and sure enough some get in our drinks. Given what’s coming it’s a bit odd that we even bother to scoop them out.

Our platter arrives and it’s amazing.

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One portion was a wok-fried mix in green spicy sauce that included grasshoppers, crickets and silkworm larvae – these were probably the best, especially the larvae. We dipped into the scorpion, similar to the scorpion we had in Bangkok but maybe slightly better. The tarantulas were quite good – the legs were a bit chewy and tangy, the thorax was like chicken and the body was like liver. Apparently the shells were edible but they were a bit tough, I peeled the abdomen back and scooped out bits of liver-looking goop piece by piece.

There was also a “tarantula donut” which was a tarantula covered in a fluffy batter and deep fried with a side of chutney, it was decent as well.

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There were also Giant Waterbugs were which a bit of a let down, took a bit of work to get into them and there was very little meat. The French-style croc was delicious but a bit more gristly than most Australian croc I’ve had, and the Khmer croc was a little dry.

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All in all it was definitely a unique culinary experience and actually much better than anticipated. Top marks for presentation alone. We washed everything down with a second round of very colourful cocktails and headed back to the hostel. Off to see some temples tomorrow, can’t wait.

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